[STO] The Tribble Evolution Flowchart

Tribble breeding may be one of the strangest mini-games to have ever hit any MMO ever. Actually breeding the things is very easy:

  1. Take your tribble.
  2. Put in an enclosed area (such as your inventory) with anything edible and spare space.
  3. Wait one hour.

And that’s pretty much it. Given enough food, tribbles expand to fill the available space. They are also utterly adorable and can be taken out and petted while on ground missions, which provides the owner with either a small self heal or a buff.

The interesting side of tribble breeding is that the little fluff balls also come in different varieties. Some have different markings, some give different buffs. And if you right-click on your tribble to bring up the context menu and select ‘info’ you can find out to which sub-species your pet belongs. And the different varieties of child tribble that a parent will spawn depend strongly on which food item is available.

So if you isolate your tribble in a breeding box (ie. your inventory, containing only the food item you want the tribble to eat), you can breed predictable tribblets.

I mention this because Matt.C on rpg.net found a beautifully rendered guide to tribble breeding and evolution by KappaTau from the official STO boards.

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This is the cut down version, if you go to KappaTau’s thread he also links to a rather gorgeous wallpaper edition, so you can stare at little tribbles all day and … I’m not sure where I’m going with this but it’s an absolutely awesome piece of work.

Time to bring back the 40 man raids? Or what makes a good public raid anyway?

I had a chance to join a random pick up raid in STO recently. The window came up, I clicked yes to zone in and …

It was … duh duh DUH … the crystalline entity!  There were ships all over the place, no one had a clue what to do, local chat was buzzing, adds zoomed around, lots of people died. And then somehow order was slowly pulled out of chaos. People started to give useful instructions, working out how to avoid healing the entity by mistake. There were more deaths, more waves of adds, more swearing. And then finally, the crystalline entity was vanquished by the combined forces of the Federation. Hurrah! Loot for all.

Even my little low level cruiser helped a bit, or at least failed to hinder. And you know what? It was fun. Really good fun.

The conclusions I draw from this are:

  1. STO is actually a pretty fun game at its core. (I gave up for a week or two in solidarity with my husband who couldn’t play until his new computer arrived, but now it is here and settled, it’s back to the Klingon bashing.)
  2. Raiding in pick up groups can be insanely good fun. There is some genuine fun gameplay to be had.
  3. Holy shit, WoW raids would not work as cross-server PUGs the way they are currently designed.

I have seen a few people express the wish for a cross-server random raid tool in Warcraft. For this to work, cross-server raids really need to be designed differently from the current 10/25 man raid instances. The only current raids that even come close to viable for cross-server groups are VoA and Onyxia. And I want to discuss why that might be.

Firstly, current 10/25 mans are way too dependent on the tank/s and their gear. Anyone who has used the LFD tool will be familiar with the way tanks get heavily scrutinised even in random 5 man instances.

Now imagine a cross-server PUG ICC raid. What would happen is that people would drop group instantly if the tanks weren’t highly (over)geared. They would drop group if the group makeup wasn’t optimal, for whatever they considered to be optimal. They would drop group as soon any anything went wrong. They would drop group as soon as anything went right and they’d gotten their loot. They would drop group as soon as anyone told them to do anything they didn’t want to do. They wouldn’t all be using the same addons. Half of them would refuse to use flasks or other consumables.

Or in short, as soon as the raid gets remotely hard, it’s vanishingly unlikely that a cross-server PUG will have the patience to do it. Especially for people from lively servers where they have the options to organise their own PUGs where they can also inspect and vet the other players first.

But there is an answer to this.

Fun pick up raids need to be epic, they need to be large scale, they need to not be overly dependent on one or two people, and they need to have simple tactics that are easy to communicate.

So for example, in DaoC, one of the  master level raids involves players invading an enemy keep full of elite minotaur-type mobs and clearing them all out. The keep was huge. Players could use siege equipment if they wanted. There were a lot of mobs. We often zerged the place, telling people the rough kill order and which objectives they needed to capture first. It was chaos, and madness, and constant fighting. And players loved it.

The crystalline entity that I mentioned above was another fun large scale raid. It was chaos, and madness, and constant fighting. And I loved it (can’t speak for the other players!)

I suspect that key to the random raids being fun is that they’re not so heavily skill based that you need to care whether anyone else in the raid knows the tactics or is a hardcore raider. As long as you have a good mix of people, and people can obey simple instructions, the stronger players will make up for the weaker ones. And everyone will get the reward.

If WoW does choose to go this route, and make some  public raids for the cross-server random groups, maybe it is time to go back to the big 40 man raids. Make them big. Make them epic. Make them fun. Make them chaotic. Allow people to let their hair down a bit.

But absolutely do not make them hard, because that does nasty things to random group members.

[STO] Look Around You

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I am still enjoying my slow and rather casual explorations of Star Trek Online. No matter that the rest of my fleet were zooming around in their Tier 2 or 3 ships when we tried some fleet action last weekend, no matter if other people I know have almost reached the level cap, I’m still having fun pottering around in my little Miranda class starship.

One of the interesting things about trying a new MMO, and especially when you are used to something as heavily modded as WoW is that you can’t always rely on addons or quest helpers to let you fly by instrument. In fact, ironically because STO is one of the few settings where it would be totally in character to fly by instrument, I end up doing a lot of looking around me to find quest objectives and crafting nodes (I mean, space anomalies.)

For example, the screenshot above shows my ropey old starting cruiser heading towards an anomaly in space.

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I’ve highlighted the anomaly here.

They’re really not hard to spot, but it feels like a reward for keeping your eyes peeled and actually looking at the world around you.

More than just scanning your minimap to find nodes.

I find this setup to be very immersive. I love to feel rewarded for paying attention to the game world, even if it’s just that I can spot the anomalies quickly. I also enjoy that an automatic map or addon won’t do this for me. There is a breakpoint at which it gets frustrating to be looking at a screen of wallpaper trying to spot the little dots which are your quest mobs (this reminds me of pouring dutifully over my little sister’s photos of a cricket match she once saw where she was so far away from the action that all you could see were tiny white dots on a big green field). But despite that, there’s still some fun to be had from spotting things for yourself, even if the game falls over itself to make it easy.

In PvP of course, looking around you is not so much a neat bonus as a way of life. You must pay attention to the surroundings. In high end raiding, the same applies. And of course, shooter style gameplay is all about looking around you, targeting, figuring out how to use cover, and so on.

On Immersion

I have pondered Wolfsheads post about Immersion. And all I can respond with is … that I think gameplay is becoming more immersive, I think story is becoming more immersive, I think character motivation is becoming WAY more immersive.

For example, STO makes it very easy to justify why your character is taking orders from the Federation, and all the missions do actually explain why you are helping with Federation goals. There’s nothing that involves a random quest dude asking you to kill ten rats, it’s all wrapped in more plausible character motivation than that.

In Wrath, I have no doubt at all why my character wants to kill the Lich King (something that was notably lacking in earlier expansions.) And if MMO gameplay is moving towards a twitcher, more shooter style, perhaps that’s also more immersive in its way.

Of course, none of this means that gameworlds can’t have convincing weather patterns, geography, and ecosystem. I like to think that maybe it’s just a matter of time before the different types of immersion all synch up.

STO: Welcome to Star Fleet, Here’s Your Tribble

Yes, another flimsy excuse to post more screenshots from Star Trek Online!

The first headstart weekend has been very busy, and servers have been heavily loaded. There have been long outages of the login servers, and Cryptic have put in a server queue which may mean more time waiting around.

Other than that, my experience with the game so far has been very smooth. Once you are actually logged in, it plays well and has handled the heavy load gracefully. I’ve played a few MMOs when they first went live and at the moment, it’s as good as any of them.

I’m not really hitting the peak US timezone, though, which is probably where the heaviest usage occurs. We’ll just have to see how the game copes when it opens up to the non-headstart players too.

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This is the USS Brunel in action. I was tempted with ironic Culture-esque names for my starship but in the end I decided to honour one of my all-time engineering heroes.

If only I could dress my character like Brunel. I think they share a few points of similarity though …

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Separated at birth? Well, maybe not but I’m sure IKB would have liked tribbles too; they make authentically adorable cooing noises when you pet them.

I don’t think it will take too long until the entire population of STO has a tribble. You can acquire one either from a friend (thanks, Longasc) or as a drop from a mob in a ground fight, because Klingons apparently like tribbles too.

Once you have your tribble, you have to decide what to do with it. If you equip it into one of your equipment slots then you will haul it along on ground missions. This means that you can take it out from time to time for a cuddle. Tribbles like being petted, and will even give you a handy short term combat buff! But if you pet it again too quickly, it will make a disgruntled eek noise.

Or you could store it in your inventory. But be careful, if there’s any food in there then the tribbles will start multiplying and you can quickly run out of inventory space.

They come in different colours and patterns. I’m not saying that I am running a tribble breeding program BUT so far I’ve seen white, black, cream, spotted (shown in the picture) and striped. I’m currently trying to pimp them to the rest of my fleet because I’m oddly reluctant to actually destroy any to make more room.

Haggis, it’s what’s for dinner?

Space combat and ground combat are two very different games in STO, so it makes sense that they require different kit and consumables. As you’d expect, drops you get from space combat are useable for space combat, and the same applies to ground combat.

Consumables for ground combat include hypodermics which function as healing potions, and food items. Amusingly, although there are a wide variety of food items in the game that will be familiar to trek fans, they aren’t restricted to dropping from appropriate races. STO denizens are a cosmopolitan lot who like to try each other’s cultural delicacies.

Here’s a thread from the boards, listing items that people have looted from dead klingons. Hot Chocolate, Haggis, tribbles …

The haggis is notable because it’s the one sole food item in my inventory that even my tribbles would not eat.

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Also my character reached the dizzying heights of rank 6, which meant I was allowed to create a Klingon side character. I went with the Orion Pirate Queen and this screenshot shows my character hanging out with some of the girls. The NPC next to me is indulging in some witch elf cosplay.

I was initially sad that I could not take to the bridge in a space bikini of my own (you can spot the player character in this shot because it is the one with clothes on), but on reflection, I need the male crewmembers to be focussing on their duties.

I plan to recruit a crew of hunky male Orions and then CONQUER THE KNOWN GALAXY!

Star Trek Online – Beta Roundup

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Star Trek is surely one of the best loved IPs of all time. It has spawned numerous TV series, films, books, comics, conferences, theme pubs, university courses, RPGs, computer games, Barbie dolls, and assorted other merchandise. This is the IP that INVENTED slashfic.

Let’s pause and think about that for a moment.

Ok, done. And now, thanks to Cryptic Studio’s latest efforts with Star Trek Online, the Federation is all set to expand into MMO space. But is this game for you?

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My Thoughts in Summary

Plus Points:

  • Visually stunning. The game is an absolute pleasure to watch. The character animations while on ground missions are also smooth as silk – your character will dive into a roll, drop to one knee to take aim, shoulder a phaser rifle as they run – it looks good. It is also easy to take great screenshots, even for graphical nonentities like your truly.
  • Space combat is very different from the standard MMO model. Positioning is important. So is watching the other guy’s shields and keeping an eye on your own. I enjoyed it very much. If you’ve been on the lookout for a space dogfighting game, this will be worth a look.
  • Open groups. It’s very easy to end up teaming up with other people productively. If you zone into a planet on a mission and others have the same mission, you will automatically join them. We weren’t very organised in beta, but you did feel like a team.
  • Some of your abilities in ground combat depend on your weapon. So if you are equipped with a phaser, you’ll automatically get the option to fire or to stun (i.e.. set phaser to stun). It’s a neat and intuitive mechanic.
  • Interesting use of bridge officers to add extra customisation. In an intriguing mechanic, you can train your bridge officers to give you extra ability options in space and extra backup on ground missions.
  • One virtual server. You’ll be able to play alongside people from all over the world, without being separated by continent.
  • Great Star Trek audio flavour. All of the sound effects and the music screamed Trek, the team has made great use of these assets. Using established Star Trek actors for voiceovers is also great, but it was the sound effecstobeta_5ts that dragged me in.
  • Excellent character and ship customisation. This is one of Cryptic’s signature strengths and they do not disappoint.
  • What is more impressive is that players are herded neatly towards creating thematic characters. So there’s a lot of freedom, but it’s hard to make something that looks completely impossible for the setting.

Minus Points:

  • The different skills and abilities on offer look complex at first sight. Your character can train different skills, your bridge officers can train skills, and you can also customise your ship’s loadout with different abilities. It isn’t easy to figure out what some of them do or how they might be useful. This feels like a complex game with a lot to learn – whether that’s because of depth or just because there is so much stuff I’ve yet to really fathom.
  • The ground missions are not as engaging as space combat. It isn’t bad per se, and did improve a lot with the latest patch, but the majority of ground missions I tried reminded me strongly of CoH instances. Wander around, collect stuff, rescue people, or explore the area, and shoot groups of enemies when you run into them.
  • “Grindy, Repetitive Missions.” I put that in inverted commas because it’s an MMO, dammit. If you enjoy flying your starship around and fighting other ships, you won’t find it dull.
  • Uninspired chat and guild systems. The chat system is workmanlike but nothing more, similar with what we saw of guilds (fleets). Allowing fleets to build a starbase to use as a centre of operations is something I’d love to see in future.
  • Is there enough game and enough world for a subscription? It’s fun, but is it fun enough to spend £10 per month on?
  • Two character slots (three if you include Klingon). If you are an altaholic, this might be a red flag.
  • Writing is serviceable but none of the NPCs really come to life. There’s no Frodo or Picard, or even a Thrall or Antonia Bayle. There are people who give you missions, none of them with striking personalities.
  • Rubbish maps. Sorry Cryptic, but the area map is not useful to the point of why bother, it’s easier to just look around and eyeball the area.
  • Why is it so hard to actually sit in the captain’s chair on the bridge?

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So why is the space combat so cool?

Your ship has four shields (fore, aft, port, and starboard – although Cryptic wimped out and called the latter two left and right), and so does the enemy. Your goal is to punch through the enemy’s shield with torpedoes and follow up with blasts of phaser fire to actually damage his or her ship. They will be trying to do the same to you.

So it is important to keep an eye on your relative positioning and which of your weapons are facing the enemy and ready to fire. Ideally ships will circle each other, trying to get off the space equivalent of a broadside. You can fire all weapons simultaneously using spacebar, or if you want to show a little more finesse, you can fire them separately as they come to bear. Bridge officers may also have expertise in space combat which manifests as short term cooldown abilities that you can use. For example, the tactical officer might be able to boost torpedo damage for 20s, or the engineering officer might be able to boost shields temporarily.

Because you are in space, there is also a 3 dimensional component. You can fly over the other ship, or underneath it. It’s not a true 3D fight, because you don’t have shields above or below to worry about, nor do you have top mounted lasers.

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For example, here my ship has blown a hole in the enemy shields. You can see that one of the barriers has gone. So hopefully I am in the process of trying to turn neatly and blast him with both fore and aft lasers simultaneously just where the shield is weak.

What you end up with is an interesting style of combat with plenty of manoeuvring and tactical interest. I’m told it gets deeper later on into the game as you get a better ship with more options available. But I enjoyed it right from the start.

Is there enough content to justify a subscription?

This is a question that you can rarely answer in a beta. But still, is there going to be enough? Between the long missions (episodes), open group actions, limited crafting and PvP, will there be enough to keep players occupied?

There is little of a virtual world feel to the game, much of the content is instanced, and the space stations themselves are fairly perfunctory. Crafting is Guilds Wars style, which means that you collect materials when you are out adventuring and then give them to an NPC to be made into equipment. There is the obligatory bank and auction house (was anyone else disturbed that you can apparently auction your bridge officers?).

But the game will often feel like a group based space/ground fighter with a bit of character advancement thrown in for fun. To me, it felt like a model that might have worked better as free to play, and then charge people for the missions, fluff, and extra content. Still, Cryptic have an ambitious update schedule, with borg attacks, group ‘raidisodes’, more PvE action for Klingons, and more Space locations to explore.

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And finally, is there enough Trek?

Star Trek is a moving target. The Trek of the original series is very different in theme to Deep Space 9 for example, and Voyager, The Next Generation, and Enterprise are different again.

STO has a strong Trek feel. The space combat in particular with it’s more stately pace and attention to shields, orientation and power assignments feels right. The actual world in which you fight – perhaps not so much.

There’s little room here for the strong themes of exploring new worlds, showing mercy to your enemies, and being a force for harmony and growth. That’s ditched in favour of shooting Klingons. STO is probably a better game for it, but this may not be the Star Trek that diehard fans were hoping to immerse themselves in. Then again, the franchise itself is moving away from the idealism of the original series that caught so many hearts and minds in the first place. Here’s a great post by Mitch Wagner on the tor.com blog discussing how the latest film takes a different tack, and possibly not a better one.

Why Star Trek Online needs lots of combat

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Note: The image above is my beta character right at the beginning of the tutorial. I’m hoping to have some more time with the game over the weekend, with a view to writing up my own impressions next week.

Star Trek Online is well into open beta when I write this. Syp has compiled a long list of various blogger’s first impressions if you are curious as to how the game is being received, but one comment that I have heard from fans is that … Trek shouldn’t be a combat centric game. After all, in the episodes, the crew are much more likely to be brokering diplomatic treaties, discovering cures for space lurgy, or just messing around with Q.

In response to this, an anecdote from my pen and paper years. As an undergraduate engineer, we were all sent off to a one week course in a factory in Birmingham to teach us to use machining equipment (it was considered essential that all qualified engineers know how to use a lathe, grinder, arc welder, and other machine tools — even software engineers). So there we were, staying in a pretty rough area where the nightlife wasn’t, and it wasn’t safe to wander around late anyway. One of the group had brought his Star Trek RPG books with him so we got a game together to pass the time.

It was great. But every time anyone did anything cool, they got court martialled. My character got court-martialled once for setting her phaser to kill even though she didn’t shoot anyone with it. That is the Star Trek universe if you play it according to canon. The hijinks that the crew of the Enterprise get up to in the TV series will get YOUR character court-martialled. And they were mild compared to the antics that a group of player characters (PCs) will typically manage.

So if Cryptic choose to stir things up by declaring all out war all over their background, it should be considered a great boon for immersion. Why? Because in times of war, even Star Fleet will actually let you kill people and generally take part in the sorts of mad derring-do that people play games for in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, a more canonic version of the Star Trek ethos would be fun, and would probably work great in a single player game where you can really play up the inter-character drama and interesting choices that players might need to make. (I’m thinking that a Star Trek themed game like Dragon Age would be terrific fun, but we do have Mass Effect 2 coming up for those who want to get their Bioware Sci-Fi game on). But when you have lots of players milling around in your world, especially when said world has largely negated the need for crafting or currency, you probably do need to let them shoot things.

Or else instead of Star Trek Online, you will end up with Star Fleet Court Martial Online.

These are the Voyages of the Starship Tribblebuster

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Star Trek Online is (still) currently due to launch on February 2nd in the US and the 5th here in Europe, less than a month from today. And as is customary, the NDA for press has been dropped before the general punters in the beta test are officially allowed to talk about their experiences.

The open beta is due to start next week, on Jan 12th, where everyone who has preordered will get a chance to see a) if they feel that they’ll get their money’s worth and b) to try to snag some variant of the name USS Enterprise which will be pointless because beta characters get wiped before the headstart, but people will forget this fact.

Cryptic have provided for a wide range of pre-order bonuses, depending on which purveyor of digital entertainment you choose to grace with your custom. These are nicely gauged to draw in the Trekkies (Constitution Class starship, mirror universe costumes, pet tribble, etc) without actually affecting the gameplay in any way. Whatever you think of this type of trick (bribe the punters with cute pets and cosmetic outfits!), it works. Or at least, it works on this punter. Bring on the tribble!

And now I just need someone to tell me how long the ship names are allowed to be so I can decide whether USS Justifiable Homicide is a go or not. Or I could wait until next week, when I will hopefully be able to file some reports from deep space in person.

Still, how are the initial preview reports shaping up?

Gamespy features a three part preview, where Gerald Villoria focusses on explaining what it’s all about (at least in the parts I have read, maybe he brings his conclusions in at the end.)

Wesley Yin-Poole at Videogamer.com likes the game and says that when it is good it is very good, but it feels grindy in the closed beta, and he finds it painfully slow paced. (My comment: Grindiness is something that is easily fixed in a tuning pass if it’s an issue, so that’s not necessarily a roadblock. But I do appreciate that he played the game and gave his genuine impressions – that’s what I like to see in a preview.)

Nick Kolan describes the opening mission in impressive depth (wonder if he played it much longer than that) at ign.com.

Anyone else planning on Star Trekkin’?